Here’s something you probably never thought of. The last year and a half or so of the COVID pandemic has been a lot like a trip to the International Space Station. We were launched from our snug, regular office routines and sent to live and work in isolation, with most of our communication coming virtually. Now, that part of the mission is coming to a close, and things are going to get tricky.
In space travel the two most dangerous periods are takeoff and reentry. The same is true for the work “mission” we’ve been on. We survived the chaos and stress of liftoff reasonably (some would say surprisingly) well. Now we’re preparing for reentry. This is where it can get dicey.
It’s not the landing that’s most dangerous
The most dangerous part of re-entry is not the landing (or splashdown depending on the vehicle). Most of the danger comes from the friction and explosive heat generated upon crossing through the earth’s atmosphere.
What does this have to do with getting back to the office? Simply put, there may be a lot more friction there than you are accounting for.
While a significant number of us are pining for a return to normal, that may be a pipe dream. Most people are not going to wake up one morning and be back at their regular desk as if the last eighteen months didn’t happen. There will be an adjustment period, and HR will find itself in the midst of the turmoil.
What kind of challenges are we talking about?
The teams will probably not come back fully intact.
One of the things we’ve learned about working remotely is when teams had been co-located and had good, productive working relationships, things went pretty smoothly. People maintained those relationships and were able to function because they had history, existing knowledge and relationships, and merely had to adjust. But is everyone going to return to the office? How will you quickly onboard, train and include new team members?
The rise of hybrid work will mean changes in how we lead.
There was a time when the default situation was everyone worked in the same location. Then you had remote team members, and many teams were fully remote. Now we’re entering a stage where you have have a more equal mix of people co-located and those working elsewhere. That’ll be complicated by the fact that someone may be in the office on Wednesday, but not on Monday. Teams will have to create processes and ways of working together that offer more flexibility. Leaders will need to lead in ways that are inclusive, and don’t default to the folks in the office.
Individuals have developed new routines and habits.
The good news is that people have had the flexibility to develop their own routines and ways of working. The bad news is that people have developed their own routines and ways of working. Many of your folks will find it difficult to return to the way things were done before, or will find that their peers are working differently than expected. There will be an adjustment period.
We haven’t had to deal with people we didn’t want to deal with for a while. That’s going to get interesting.
There have always been tensions in working with others. Politics, social attitudes and lifestyle differences means people haven’t always gotten along, but because they shared a workplace they made it work. For the last year and a half if Bob hasn’t wanted to listen to Mary, he hasn’t had to. Given the tumultuous year and half we’ve lived (COVID, riots, election chaos) don’t be surprised if people bring their strong opinions back to the workplace. It may take a while to work out.
There’s a second wave of turnover coming.
The last year and a half has given people a chance to reflect on what they want their work life to be. Some have already decided that they like working from home and don’t want to face a commute and time away from the family. Others can’t wait to be in an office and are dying to get back with people. Others are just happy to have kept their jobs and go with the flow. But one thing we know, is that having experienced the flexibility and change in work-life balance that remote work offers, people are going to want flexibility. We are already seeing tensions with employers who insist everyone work from home until further notice, while others say if you don’t come back to the mother ship you’ll be fired. About six months in, people are going to have a chance to reevaluate where they are in their lives and careers. Don’t be surprised when they vote with their feet.
None of this is to say that the “Return to Office,” needs to be a horrible experience. In fact, it’s a once-in-a-generation chance to reevaluate the kind of workplace you want to be. Honestly, it’s not like your workplace was a heaven on earth before the pandemic. There were things we wished we could change. Now here’s our chance.
As HR professionals, we’ll find ourselves in the midst of the change. We will be dealing with a lot of friction on reentry. The good news is, if we are prepared we can survive and thrive what comes next.
If you’re looking for a guidebook to help your teams navigate the upcoming transition, check out The Long-Distance Teammate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.